Our Opinion: Reaching across the aisle
Last week, in his second inaugural address, Gov. Phil Scott struck a positive and cooperative tone in setting a course for Vermont the next two years.
A minority party governor addressing a majority party Legislature, the Republican governor wasn't conciliatory or defiant. Instead, he appealed for cooperation in the interest of the people and qualities that make this state a special place.
"The good is in our hearts, it's in our minds and it's who we've always been," the governor said. "Today, more than ever, it's who America needs us to be. And to meet the challenges ahead, to best serve Vermonters, it's who we have to be."
Gov. Scott called on lawmakers to work with him and together for the greater good of Vermonters and not along ideological lines.
"We must face the economic realities that exist across the state, in all 251 towns, cities and villages, and the impact our policies have on each of them," Gov. Scott said. "We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength."
He remained ambitious, calling for an Act 250 revamp and an investment in child care. He also addressed the state's liability for funding its pensions and cleaning up Lake Champlain. All this, without adding new taxes and fees.
A familiar shortcoming of such addresses, it was light on details. Gov. Scott said specifics will be rolled out in his budget. We anticipate seeing how he proposes to move forward.
Gov. Scott focused on Vermont's demographic challenges: A lack of workers to fill jobs and a lack of children to fill classrooms. The state has an aging population. These are among the most crucial challenges for Vermont, and Gov. Scott was wise to draw attention to them.
Gov. Scott cited statistics detailing how those trends are adversely affecting Vermont's 14 counties. Scoring points with lawmakers and residents outside greater Burlington, he noted how the decline in the workforce -— down 15,000 workers since 2009, he said — has had a real impact on Vermont outside Chittenden County.
Fewer workers doesn't just mean fewer taxpayers to share the burden of affording essential services, Gov. Scott reminded lawmakers; it also means "fewer customers at businesses, ratepayers for utilities, fewer available for our volunteer fire departments and others who support the needs of our communities."
In Windham and Bennington counties, according to Gov. Scott, the labor force has shrunk by 10 percent since peak employment, and school enrollment is down by 21 percent in Bennington County and 23 percent in Windham County since 2004.
Gov. Scott reached for the heart strings when addressing education. In the past, the discussion on education has focused on the cost borne by taxpayers - how it's funded, which districts could or should merge, etc. But Gov. Scott said those discussions have "distracted from the single most important purpose of our schools: educating our kids."
Thursday, Gov. Scott appealed to lawmakers on the basis of assuring equity and opportunity, citing the example of two middle schools — which he did not name — that send students to the same high school, but with vastly different experiences. One school, he said, offers plenty of co-curricular and enrichment opportunities and advanced classes; the other does not.
Vermonters should be glad that the governor proposed immediate testing for lead in the drinking water at every public school, rather than a phase-in approach by 2021. That echoes a proposal supported by state Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and state Senate President pro tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden.
Some topics only got a passing mention, but deserved more.
For example, Gov. Scott spoke of the "moral obligation to protect our seniors and kids and treat those impacted by mental illness or addiction," but offered no new details on improving accessibility to care and treatment in Vermont.
Likewise, Gov. Scott talked about using the state's share of money from the Volkswagen diesel emissions case to help Vermonters buy electric vehicles. But he didn't touch on climate change, even to tout his administration's own initiatives and views. It would have been good to hear from the governor on how Vermont will address the unfolding climate crisis in the absence of leadership from Washington. Certainly, the activists assembled in Montpelier on Thursday lobbying for and against a carbon tax would have liked to hear more.
We also didn't hear Gov. Scott talk about how he might work with the Legislature on competing visions for a new version of the toxic pollution liability bill that he vetoed last term, or how concerns he raised in that veto could be addressed. PFOA pollution in Bennington is not yesterday's news - it's still a concern affecting health and property values, and the competing bills on the topic will be watched carefully in this part of the state.
And then there's the question of how the state will pay for all the things Gov. Scott wants to do, while adding no new taxes or fees. "Vermonters elected me, and many of you, to ensure we don't ask them to shoulder any more of the tax burden. They're doing their part. It's time for us to do ours," he said.
Bennington's veteran state Senator, Dick Sears, sees an inherent contradiction in insisting upon both.
"Those new initiatives cost money, so that means that other programs will be shortchanged. And that is what we went through the last couple of years and made life difficult," he said.
The names may have changed, and the likelihood of a special session budget showdown may have practically vanished, but the $6 billion question remains the same.
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